Pulau Ketam – the Venice of the East
By Franz Scheurer
Malaysia is a country of contrasts, colours and spices. Hyper-modern buildings compete with houses on stilts, shark-fin soup with bakuteh, suits with batik and real income in hard currency with a pittance in ringgits and a mentality of ‘must have the latest’ with one of ‘where do we get the money for the next meal’. However one thing all Malaysians have in common: they’re genuinely hospitable, easy-going with an incredible amount of patience and they always have the time for a smile.
Most visitors to Malaysia will easily find places like the Petronas Twin Towers, Batu Caves, Cameron Highlands and the incredible Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Shah mosque. They might even travel to Penang (best in June when the durians are ripe and dropping off the trees) but it takes insider knowledge and a sense of adventure to visit Crab Island (Pulau Ketam) located off the coast of Port Klang.
Klang is about an hour's drive southeast from Kuala Lumpur. You can get there by train from Kuala Lumpur or hire a driver, which means you have someone who speaks the local language and English, knows the area and, most importantly, you are sitting in the comfort of an air-conditioned car; and it’s very affordable. Klang is the city where bakuteh originated. Bakuteh is not simply a ‘health soup’ but a work of art. Based on a pork stock (using pork short ribs with a little meat on them) it is enhanced by a plethora of herbs and spices and eminently palatable and medicinal. Angelica is probably the strongest flavour and if prepared properly this is one of the world’s best broths. As you have to travel through Klang to Port Klang to catch a boat to Pulau Ketam I suggest you stop at a roadside hawker stall and enrich your life with a bowl of bakuteh.
Once sated and with a big, silly grin on your face, proceed to Port Klang and walk to the end of the jetty. Here you will find an air-conditioned, low-slung ferry (akin to a very old version of Sydney’s ‘river cats’), that will take you to Pulau Ketam in about 30 minutes, but I suggest you walk right past it and enter the old-fashioned open ferry that will also get you there… eventually. You will have to be patient, as it will only depart once it has enough ‘victims’ on board, but the slow ride to the island is well worth it. Expect to pay about 15 ringgits return for this privilege (and as they’re tour operators there is no one way ticket). It’s then best to forego the return ticket and pay another 7 ringgits to take the air-conditioned ‘river cat’ back, but more about that later…
Once the ferry is agreeably full and the fares have been collected (cash only) the captain starts the engines and after yet another leisurely read of the local paper and an ‘all singing all dancing’ performance from his young wife (armed with a megaphone) the ferry is gently reversed out and heads for the island. Everyone is smiling and everyone takes the time to watch the scenery. First you glide past the harbour and you see the big container vessels moored off the coast. Then surprisingly, as you approach the first island, a canal cuts straight through it, allowing the ferry safe passage. Small groups in tiny boats are crabbing in the mangroves on either side of the channel. Once clear of this island you head for Pulau Ketam and after a good hour on the water you arrive safely. Pulau Ketam is a village built totally on stilts and once you have climbed up the rickety ramp from the ferry you have to negotiate the narrow, wooden walkways to get around. This is also the time when you discreetly ‘lose’ the other ferry passengers and the woman with the megaphone. The last thing you want to do is an organised tour of the village and a lunch at the restaurant of their choice. Suddenly it’s quiet and the only motorized vehicles you’ll see are a few electric scooters. Only the occasional blaring of a stereo and the shouting of the women doing their washing disturb the quiet.
Pulau Ketam is a fishing village. Large canals dissect the village every few hundred metres and giant, purpose built boats are moored in impossibly tight spaces everywhere. When it is high tide the village is alive, bright and mysterious, but when the tide is out and there is no water left underneath most of the houses, it becomes obvious that they do not have a working sewerage or garbage disposal system. The smell can deter some delicate noses but I suggest you overcome your prejudices and realise that a very large part of the world does not benefit from the same hygiene standards that you might be used to.
The inhabitants of this ‘Venice of the East’ certainly do everything in their power to keep things as clean as the circumstances allow. There is scrubbing, wiping and mopping going on everywhere and rows of shoes wait outside most dwellings. There are cafés, shops, restaurant and a police station, temples, mosques, a community hall, a school and even a pinball parlour with the oldest, working fun machines I’ve ever seen.
Photography is not a problem, the locals generally welcome the few tourists who manage to get here, but I suggest you ask permission, especially when taking pictures of religious dwellings or women.
The island has a reputation for fresh fish and seafood and rightly so. Mud crab seems to be the favourite fare and is offered live, in every restaurant. You can have it served simply steamed with ginger and shallots (the Chinese way), in a dense, dry curry sauce (the Marmak way), or deep-fried the way the Malays like it. Value for money is always exceptional, even if you forget to bargain.
Drinking water on the island is collected rainwater and supposedly that is what they use to wash vegetables and fruit. I suggest that if you have a delicate stomach you steer away from anything that might have been in contact with the local water, unless, of course if it has been boiled. Drink commercial soft-drinks in bottles or tins (using a straw), the local beer or tea and avoid freshly squeezed fruit juices and slurpies (the ice is made from the local water). Also, don’t forget, it is always hot and humid there and a hat is a good idea, especially if you’re planning to walk around the village exploring. Once tired and sated I suggest you take the air-conditioned river cat back to Port Klang and make your way back to Kuala Lumpur. It will have been a fantastic day with lots of memories to keep forever.